Gwyneth with Eagle Clan teacher Andy Darring
Gwyneth just graduated from Pathfinder. She attended 3rd-8th grade. I am a wreck! I’m not ready for her to move on to high school, for the “beginning of the end”. I want to just stop time and stay here where they need me just enough but are independent enough. This is the sweet spot.
I was a joyful mother when my kids started preschool and Kindergarten. Not one of those weepy moms who seemed to think that was the beginning of the end. My kids are “challenging” and school offered me a break and support. Gwyneth was diagnosed with Aspergers when she was 6. She attended a social skills group outside of school in addition to attending the one at school offered to kids in the “Autism Inclusion Program”. While some parents were spending their afternoons on a muddy soccer field I sat in a coffee shop with Moms of other kids in the social skills group. There I learned things could always be more challenging with my kid. I was also surrounded by people who laughed at stories about my left of center child rather than looked at me with pity and shook their heads.
Although I was glad to have a break while my girl was in school I was also painfully aware of how hard the social aspect of school was for her. Everything caused her anxiety from walking down the hall to going to the bathroom. Those first 3 years of school were her hardest years. In third grade Pathfinder moved into the Cooper building. I was sad to see all of her classmates get moved to different schools and worried more about my girl’s ability to make friends when I just watched her take 2 and half years to do so. But third grade proved to be her best year yet. Lisa DeBurle was the very teacher she needed with clear boundaries, clear expectations and she made the kid’s social and emotional development part of the curriculum – as does every teacher at Pathfinder, I learned. Lisa encouraged other kids to reach out to mine and she made some friends! Of course, my girl’s academic skills grew in leaps and bounds as well but my biggest concern were her friendships.
My daughter continued to thrive at Pathfinder. She enjoyed 2 strong years in the Eagle Clan with Andy Darring. Just a few weeks into her 4th grade year she announced to me that she didn’t want to do social skills group with the Autism Inclusion Program anymore because she felt there was nothing more she could learn from it. We had a conference with Andy and her inclusion teacher about it. Andy validated her comment about feeling like she wouldn’t gain anymore from the social skills class stating that for a 6 week trial period she could stay in the general ed classroom full time with the exception of her time with OT and speech. Andy said as long as her participation was appropriate we could meet again about amending her IEP. After 6 weeks she more or less “Graduated” from the inclusion program. Her IEP minutes dropped from somewhere around 800 minutes a week to the 300’s! In IEP speak that is a drastic change.
Personally, I fell in love with Andy’s teaching style. He is so direct with the kids, clear expectations and he really knows the kids on a very individual basis. He also challenges them physically, emotionally and socially. They are not always comfortable in that class. And I mean that in a good way. Andy also does something else very powerful and impactful: He cries in front of the kids. He cries when he has to say good bye at the end of the year, he cries when the kids are being especially malicious to each other and he shares personal stories to stress how short and fragile life is to drive home the point of why he insists on kindness. My daughter felt validated in this class and she thrived because of it.
Middle School. I was so thankful to be at Pathfinder. Same building, similar kids, small student body. But I didn’t know what to expect academic wise. But I knew my daughter was safe, that bullying wouldn’t be ignored. But I worried about bullying that no one saw or that my daughter didn’t share with me. She is after all, a little left of center and kids can be cruel during the middle school years pecking their way to the top.
Academically, my daughter thrived. In 6th grade she was receiving resource help with math. By 7th grade she didn’t need any help. In 8th grade she was invited to take Algebra as well as 8th grade math. She passed it all with straight A’s and can take geometry with the sophomores this coming fall. Socially, she slipped. She started to distance herself from friends saying she didn’t have anything in common with them anymore. This broke my heart. It sucks to be alone when you are in middle school and I worried about how others treated her. Despite my daughter not sharing too much with me about her experiences at school I saw glimpses of what others thought of her. They know she’s a talented artist. A couple of her classmates told me so. When she was out sick for a week I stopped by to pick up her classwork and another student left a message for her saying she was their “savior”. I’m not sure what it was about but it put a smile on my daughter’s face. Another student made a whole slideshow of my daughter during one of their field trips trying to get her to smile.
But the most telling was during the heart circle on the 8th grader’s last night of camping together as a class. The kids were all given the opportunity to share or not share anything they appropriately needed to. One boy opened it up stating he wasn’t ready to leave and then promptly burst into tears. My daughter, the one that NEVER shares just because, the one who took NINE months before she joined the circle at her preschool – her teacher didn’t like to push such things – shared openly and on her own “I like Pathfinder and I will miss you all”. And then she cried along with the rest of her class.
This is the kind of school my kids attend. The kind where 8th grade girls and boys feel safe to not only verbalize their feelings but to openly cry when doing so. People can criticize the academics, our test scores, the fact that kids call teachers by their first names. But this is really what it’s all about. People, relationships, stories of kindness, openness and vulnerability cause you feel safe to be vulnerable. I wouldn’t change a thing. Finn has 3 more years at Pathfinder and I’m going to cherish every second.
– Testimonial written by Molly Gras-Usry, Pathfinder parent, and past PTSA President
The PTSA provides funds to every classroom and specialty program at Pathfinder. To make a donation to support the programs that enhance learning at Pathfinder, follow this link >> Direct Give
Picture used with permission of Molly Gras-Usry